The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989 - April, 1990 Page: 262
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Emancipation is the central event in the history of black Americans.
It follows, then, that the commemoration of Emancipation Day should
be an equally important event in black social history. What is surprising
is that prior to the publication of William Wiggins's O Freedom! Afro-
American Emancipation Celebrations, there had been no systematic study
of black emancipation day celebrations.
Wiggins divides emancipation celebrations into three categories: sa-
cred celebrations, usually held in churches, which featured prayer, ser-
mons, and dramatic readings of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation;
secular celebrations, usually held at a park or fair grounds, character-
ized by barbecue, baseball, and beer; and those that combine aspects of
both the secular and the sacred, often with a bit of politics thrown in as
well. Wiggins also traces the origins of these celebrations to antebellum
slave festivities and relates them to the struggle for civil rights in the
Wiggins, a folklorist by training, is at his best when he examines
emancipation celebrations as manifestations of local or regional black
culture. Differences in the manner of celebration, or even in the day of
celebration from community to community underscore the continuing
grassroots nature of these activities. Wiggins's descriptions of June-
teenth festivities in central Texas, August 8 celebrations in Kentucky,
and January 1 activities in Georgia vividly illustrate both the diversity
and the common elements in rural black culture; furthermore his as-
sertion that the spread of specific Emancipation Day celebration prac-
tices relates to patterns of black migration and urbanization suggests
the potential that folklore studies have for enriching our understand-
ing of black history.
Unfortunately, Wiggins promises more than he can deliver. His
efforts to directly connect emancipation celebrations to antebellum
slave celebrations are not convincing. His attempts to link these cele-
brations with the evolution of black political consciousness and black
political activity are weakened by an oversimplified view of black poli-
tics that ignores the historical shifts and conflicts within black political
Wiggins bases his study on a variety of sources. He utilizes oral his-
tory and firsthand observation of Emancipation Day activities very
effectively to describe vividly the range and variety of Emancipation
Day practices. He relies on newspapers, magazines, and collections of
Emancipation Day memorabilia to supplement interview material and
provide insight into the history of these celebrations. There are, how-
ever, weaknesses in his methodology. Although he visits a Texas June-
teenth celebration, Wiggins consults few Texas local history sources or
newspapers. Although he distributes survey questionnaires to Emanci-
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989 - April, 1990, periodical, 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101213/m1/302/: accessed February 23, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.